Karibu! Welcome!

Posted on March 17, 2011


And so I find myself in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Flew with Kenya Airways and arrived in Nairobi at about 6.15am on Wednesday morning. Had to wait 2 hours before my connecting KA flight down to Lubumbashi. That journey in itself is a two and a half hour flight. Got into Lubs at about 10.30am. Shattered.

Lubumbashi airport is an interesting place. As you come out onto the tarmac from the plane, you notice around you quite a few airplanes. Unsurprising really, considering it’s an airport… What is surprising, however, is that they’re all quite small, with wonderful designs on them, such as zebra stripes. Design-wise, the below (found on Google) is very similar. As a result, it feels as though you’ve gone back in time, with all the planes looking like tourist safari planes from the 1950’s or something. Weird.

The airport itself is reasonably sized, by African standards, but it’s completely run-down, with construction (read: destruction) currently underway inside. Lights and plaster are being pulled down, the mess is astonishing, and you have guys literally hanging off the very narrow and fragile-looking wooden beams, ripping cabling from the ceiling. With absolutely no protection at all. Not really seen anything like that for a while – health and safety anyone?! Nah, overrated.

Anyway. Prince, who works for the Frankfurt Zoo (FZS) and is in charge of logistics for our project, met me just off the runway, at the entrance to the airport. He took me through the initial passport stamping procedure. We entered the building and found ourselves in a small room with about 4/5 booths crammed next to each other, Congolese immigration officials staring out in sheer boredom through the perspex windows, no doubt wondering why on earth they were wasting their time there.

There was no queuing system. There was no British ‘after you’ or ‘next’. It was an absolute free-for-all, a complete shambles. Prince managed to bat off Congolese (fore)hand after Congolese (back)hand, like Tim Henman in his prime (did Tim play against Congolese tennis players, I wonder?), as they tried their best to make a profit from a muzungu (whitey/tourist).

Well. I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. I’m a seasoned traveller after all. I know how to get by in Africa thank you very much Dr Congo (not a real Dr)!! Do you take me for a fool?!

As it happens, they did. And quite rightly too. They took my yellow fever vaccination certificate off me to “check it” – of course to get it back, I had to pay a ‘validation fee’. Not so seasoned a traveller after all.

A pretty unimpressive start.

The subsequent half-hour wait for the luggage was even more entertaining. If I’d been watching the action from straight on, rather than from the side, I would have thought myself at a theatre watching a play; a farce no less. A tiny conveyor belt, as normal as those used in all airports worldwide, took pride of place in the centre of the ‘stage’; when I say ‘normal’, I do mean normal for the 1950’s. Which is probably when it was last in use. The baggage handlers were the cast, a group of them just standing by the opening, chatting, mucking around, waiting for the bags to come. Except, the bags were already there. At their feet. The handlers weren’t waiting for anything, they were just bored and having fun; it was the bags that were waiting for them.

And so, the lights went down, the curtains were raised, and the farce was underway. Pandemonium ensued: complete lack of organisation; shouting from everywhere in the room; people walking all over the creaking, moaning contraption of a carousel; only ten bags at a time being placed on the carousel, for ten minutes at a time; men jostling with each other for bags they claimed to be theirs, and that evidently weren’t; bags going round and round and round and round the carousel, like lost souls, calling out for their owners, only to be dumped outside again when they weren’t collected, left to wait for the next round. A true Congolese farce, brilliant!

I finally got out of there, $20 out-of-pocket, but relieved to have both my passport and yellow fever vaccination certificate back safe in my possession. Prince – well, his mate Adam actually – drove us back to the office/house through the destroyed, pot-holed streets of Lubumbashi, while sad, amused, perplexed and beautiful faces stared back at me from the sidewalks.

“Karibu mzungu!” some of them would say. “Asante! Thank you!” I thought to myself in reply, realising I truly meant it.

It’s good to be here, really good to be here.

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